A Conversation for Evil from a Western Perspective
Augustine and Evil
quicumque Started conversation Nov 20, 2002
I like the snappy writing style of this article, but that's about
all I like about it. Sorry, it just ain't like this.
What I want to concentrate on here is what the article has to say about Augustine and his distinctive
contribution to the Western theology of evil.
It's a bit of a travesty.
First of all, a brief summary of Christian attitudes towards
evil in the 2nd and 3rd century.
The first important distinction you need to make is between
relative and absolute dualism.
Absolute dualists like the Christian Gnostics claimed that
this universe is evil and that we are sparks of good spirit
trapped in it.
Relative dualists like Platonist-influenced Christians
saw this material universe as inferior to the realm of
the spirit, but still good.
The second view is the one that won out in Christianity.
This occured for a number of reasons. They saw that
God had declared his creation "good" in Genesis. So they
realised that they could not call the body or anything material or even
any existing thing evil. Secondly, they believed that God
had become a full human in Jesus Christ. A body was
the means by which humans were redeemed and they believed
that their bodies, like that of Jesus, would be raised
from the dead. The early Christian paradise was (and still
is) a bodily one; not some wafty world full of ethereal spirits.
In the 4th-5th century, the young Augustine was attracted
to Manicheanism, a Persian religious movement that incorporated
elements of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity.
Eventually, under the influence of Platonism, he rejected
Manicheanism. The Manichees, like the Gnostics rejected this
universe as evil, the result of a cataclysmic struggle between
the forces of darkeness and light. This included rejection of our
bodies and sex as evil.
Augustine rejected this view.
Firstly, with Platonism, he claimed that evil does not
exist. Rather, evil is a falling from being into non-being. Just
as dark is not something in itself, but is the absence of light, so
evil is a deficit of good. Thus, in so far as the devil exists,
the devil is good, even though he is a kind of shrunken
distortion of what God originally created him to be and
tries to reduce others to his state.
Likewise then, our bodies, in so far as they exist are good, but
after the fall of Adam they are not all that they could be. Nor
are our spirits or powers of reason. We are incapable of being
everything that God made us to be. But distorted and shrunken
as we are, we are nevertheless good, because we exist.
Without the assistance of God's grace, we have no chance of
becoming what we were meant to be.
For Augustine, as for Christian ascetics before him, the aim of
the Christian life was, by God's grace, to bring the body under the control of the grace-filled
spirit. In this sense Augustine was a relative dualist. He regarded
the body as good, but the spirit as better. He saw sex as one
of many spheres of human life in which the body tries to go
its own way and chafes at the spirit's direction. In other words,
we know what we should do, but our body's sending us other messages
and overriding out better judgement. Augustine also thought
that sex was compromised in so far as it passed on Adam's sin to the
next generation. However, he certainly didn't think people
should stop having it, let alone that the body itself was evil! Those
were precisely the ideas he had rejected in the Manichees.
The Christian ascetic tradition has often become
anti-sex and anti-pleasure in its quest to bring the body into
line with the spirit. However, it's also worth noting here
that most Medieval theologians regarded nearly all of the sexual
sins as much less serious that the "spiritual" sins because
they were associated with the promptings of the body. Thus
Pride, anger and envy, were considered far more serious than
fornication. Many Medieval theologians thought that licensed
prostitution was legitimate because, by means of a minor sin,
men were kept from much more major sins like uncharity and
adultery (problematic not because of sex itself but because
it involves infidelity, lack of charity and theft).
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